CONSIDERING WESTLAKE: MURDER AMONG CHILDREN

westlake-murderamong1967 turned out to be a productive year for Donald E. Westlake’s mainstream career with seven titles published. He kicked off the releases with a sequel to his Tucker Coe pseudonym’s Mitch Tobin detective series, which had premiered the previous year with KINDS OF LOVE, KINDS OF DEATH. The title MURDER AMONG CHILDREN might suggest a story about a bad seed kind of homicide, where schoolyard children are tied as either witnesses or perpetrators of homicide; however, this is misleading. The children of the title are actually in their early twenties, viewed as children by a world weary protagonist who had been drummed off the force for schtupping while on duty just at the time when his partner needed him most. Months after that incident, Tobin finds himself obsessed with building a wall around his back yard – digging holes, laying stone and brick, smearing mortar – but he will be damned if people won’t leave him alone to do it.

Following the events of the first novel, Mitch has enough money to allow his family to coast for a short while. He can purchase his supplies, and his wife doesn’t have to pull waitress shifts at a diner. Instead of a couple of tough guys showing up to draw him to the classic rich guy patron in need of an amateur detective’s (not a PI, since Mitch has no license) services, Mitch gets pulled more organically into this investigation by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

This time around, the hook is a lot more active. Mitch shows up at a coffeehouse called Thing East, only to discover his cousin (one of the proprietors) stumbling down the stairs drenched in blood that isn’t hers and holding an equally bloody knife. Something terrible has happened in the bedroom up those stairs, but what? Mitch doesn’t bother to go look, he immediately calls the police and waits for the experts to show up. In alternating chapters that move through this event’s fallout as well as build up to it, we learn that Mitch’s cousin was in trouble with a nosy cop coming around her new coffeehouse. As she is young and therefore assumed to be bohemian, the cop rousts the place as whim strike him, and Mitch’s young second cousin Robin wants him to talk to the cop to see if he’s looking for a bribe or is just being a prick. Well, before he can talk to anyone, there’s a murder upstairs from the joint, Robin is implicated because she cannot account for how her partner (and one time lover) could be found stabbed to death in the company of a naked, African-American hooker or how she came into contact with the murder weapon. She is arrested, and the police take statements. Mitch’s first statement, mentioning the possibly crooked cop by name, draws the attention of a police Captain – a man who is less interested in weeding out corruption than he is in getting Mitch to change his statement – should be the end of things. However, it ultimately serves as one of the two impetuses for Mitch to investigate. The other impetus is the responsibility of family. He still wants to be left alone to build his wall, but his wife and the estranged cousin won’t let him.

As he looks into the crime, he realizes the accused woman could not have done the deed. His suspects include the possibly corrupt cop, the other owners/workers in Thing East, the odd religious organization that owns the property called the New World Samaritans, and more. As Mitch investigates the crime, he draws unwanted attention from the actual killer. More bodies mount up, including a seemingly random kill that was intended for him.

Our murderer was fast, and an amateur, and improvisational. He had now murdered five times and his MO varied widely from incident to incident. He had used a knife, a car, a heavy dropped object, and a gun. He had done murder that looked like murder, framing a bystander in the process. He had done murder that looked like accident, in the hit-and-run killing . . .. He had done murder that looked motiveless, in the attempt on me. And now he had done murder that looked like suicide. (location 1764)

Eventually, Mitch will get indicted for the first crime as well, but it’s a story that will not stick and the impetus for the killer’s reveal by the novel’s end.

MURDER AMONG CHILDREN is pretty much a straight ahead detective story. The writing is as crisp as in the first volume, and Mitch’s weariness informs the first person narrative as well as it did in the first novel. Mitch is still a reluctant hero, unable to find much of a reason to start the investigation. Once he gets on board with it, he pursues it doggedly. He was a good cop, and he remains the kind of smart guy who knows how to finish what he starts. It’s just the initial “don’t want to” hump he has to get over.

The novel as mystery is a readable one, but the more interesting parts are the view of the cold war between the generations circa 1967. At one point, Mitch opines about his view of the Thing East ownership as children:

I understand the motto of the new student rebels is “Don’t trust anyone over thirty,” and they’re right. Between the child and the adult there is an opposition that cannot be breached or eased or ended. Neither side can truly comprehend the other. The child, as new and clean and efficient as a Christmas bicycle, faces the world with confidence and impatience, all his emotions gleaming like neon through the skin of his forehead. The adult, dulled and deadened and dwarfed by all the frustrations, disappointments, pains of living, faces the child with resentment and envy, insisting that the child be quiet, not make waves, not disturb the precarious balance by which the adult makes his small way through each cycle of twenty-four hours.

I was sure Hulmer and the others would not be pleased to know I thought of them as children, but that’s what they were. The twenties are the transition decade; people enter them as children and emerge to thirty as fully embittered and wary adults. (location 2014)

I had not been aware that the “Trust no one over 30!” rallying cry came about in that era. However, it makes a kind of sense. By 1967, the anti-war sentiment to America’s presence in southeast Asia had started to get stronger and uglier. Like some of Westlake’s more politically savvy novels, MURDER AMONG CHILDREN offers an intriguing view of the time period it was composed in. This one is not as politicized as say the fourth Richard Stark novel, THE MOURNER. The Mitch Tobin series is not interested in grappling with the time’s heavier topics through either text or subtext. We don’t see flower children marching against the war, per se, but we witness the resentment of the time’s counterculture movement. The authorities all seem to view young people who live in the Greenwich Village part of the Big Apple as “They’re troublemakers, Tobin. Dumbheads. Smart-ass kids. Bo-hee-mians.” (location 780) at best and perverted trash at worst. The flower children’s legacy has been woven into the background. Instead, we get some decent folks trying to kick off an entrepreneurial endeavor that likely won’t work, but giving it their best effort. The “children” like Mitch are trying to do something they think is important, but the powers that be refuse to allow them to. It’s a fun juxtaposition to see Mitch’s view of the children being subtly paralleled by Authority’s views for Mitch himself; neither group really understands the other and makes dangerous presumptions. Although murder and the unraveling of the crime is the core of this book’s plot, the story is actually about acceptance.

Mitch’s character arc requires him to do more than cope with his decisions, he needs to rejoin the world. His books thus far have positioned him outside of the events he is participating in. KINDS OF LOVE, KINDS OF DEATH gave Mitch the role taken by Westlake’s first crime novel protagonist. He was acting as a troubleshooter for the mob more or less; however, Mitch was not as tied into that world. As a former cop, he had no vested interest in the goings on. He had curiosity. Even in MURDER AMONG CHILDREN, when murder strikes closer to home, Mitch has no personal stake in solving the crime. These relatives are almost strangers to him. However, he is taking several steps away from building his wall. He still wants to, it is a none-too-subtle, concrete symbol of his disconnection from the world. He is making a place where he feels safe and where he tells himself his troubled family can be safe when the truth is pretty plain: Love is no shield against violence and even the voice of recognized authority cannot stop the worms from digging deep into the psyche and spitting up venom. This book’s antagonist is fundamentally broken, viewing violence as the only possible way to solve perceived problems. How different is this worldview from Mitch’s own certainty that building his wall will be what he needs to do to stay sane and safe? The answer is that there is no difference at all, of course. There are some fascinating undercurrents to the book where though Mitch talks to a lot of people, the most telling moments are those where people are not saying what they mean and no one comments on the real matters at hand.

If there is a fourth wall break, it is in the form of Hulmer, an African American youth who helps out at the coffeehouse and also acts as Mitch’s ride around the city. At one point, he shares an observation:

He nodded, his grin getting broader. “I like you, Mr. Tobin,” he said. “You aren’t hip by a long shot, but you aren’t square either. You’re a whole different thing. You know what you are?”

“No, Hulmer, I don’t. What am I?”

“You’re the guy that said stop the world I want to get off. And they stopped the world, and you got off, and now you look at everything from off to the left a little ways.” (location 1998)

Mitch is struck by how accurate the observation is. It is as though he has never viewed himself through such a lens before and perhaps he hasn’t. As William Blake’s poem “A Song of Innocence” tells us, adults waste their time disguising themselves. Sometimes this is a disguise for others benefit, showing the world what they need to see, and sometimes it is for our own benefit, telling us what we want to believe about ourselves. According to Blake, of course, youth wastes their days in play but which is the preferable option? Play seems the more preferable option to me, but I am someone who dabbles in the arts and can therefore be perceived as never having grown up in the first place . . .

Mitch Tobin has a lot to say about children in this book. However, when it comes right down to it, the crew in the coffeehouse seem a lot more on the ball than the “adults” who pooh-pooh them for their ideals and the gall of pursuing them.

On another note, it was fun to see Westlake handling the religious group. There seems to be an inherent distrust of believers in his books. The fine line between believer and zealot seems to be crossed far more often than sympathy for the believers; dogma seems to be just another hustle or way to exploit suckers. In a book like THE BUSY BODY, religion is more about pageantry and a way to execute a nice send off to the honored dead than it is a balm for the spirits. Ultimately, though Mitch’s narrative extends suspicion toward the New World Samaritans (which shares two thirds of its name with the terror group from THE SPY IN THE OINTMENT), but the organization has its good parts and its bad ones, its good participants and its bad ones. It’s a much more even handed treatment than I was expecting, paving the way for Westlake’s more generous treatment of religion and its proponents which would be found in books such as GOOD BEHAVIOR and BROTHERS KEEPERS.

Although I found MURDER AMONG CHILDREN to be a bit of a chore to read from a plot perspective – I have read enough detective fiction to know I prefer wise ass narrators to a morose one like Mitch Tobin – the subtext stuff is much more interesting. Of course, a lot of these dots are being connected in hindsight.

Fans of detective stories might enjoy the Mitch Tobin series. It’s a thoughtful and intriguing journey from mystery to answers. Of course, the protagonist is only starting his own journey at this point . . . Three more volumes would be released in the series, and while I don’t expect them all to have a nice little bow tying up all odds and ends by the series conclusion (at this point, I have only read two of the five), I am interested in seeing what shape Mitch Tobin will be in by the last book.

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This week’s novel is available in eBook format from the fine folks at Mysterious Press and Open Road Media.

Next week, we will jump back into Richard Stark’s short lived second series about Alan Grofield with THE DAMSEL, which follows on the heels of THE HANDLE finding Grofield recuperating in a Mexico City hotel only to get dragged into adventure when a lovely blonde comes in through his window. The book is available in eBook, print, and audio copies.

WORKS CITED

Westlake, Donald E. MURDER AMONG CHILDREN. New York, NY: Mysterious Press. 1967. eBook edition: 2013.

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